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When a person wants understanding; but their partner gives solutions, things do not usually go well. Both people can feel frustrated, teamwork can feel frayed, and disconnection can result. One can feel, “Don’t tell me what to do!” The other can feel, “Why don’t you value my help?”
Some say that this is the exact misunderstanding that led John Gray to write Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Gray saw women as usually wanting understanding, and men as usually offering problem-solving.
Many therapists have decried Gray’s lack of research basis for his claims about gender differences. But recent research may have proved him right about this one.
Psychologists Lorenzo, Barry, and Khalifian at the Universities of Maryland and Wyoming studied the differences between emotional support and informational support. They looked at which type of support a person preferred versus which type of support that person received.
They studied 114 newlywed couples, all of whom were male/female pairs in their first marriage. The emotional support questions included items such as “Said he/she thought I handled a situation well.” The informational support questions included, “Shared facts or information with me about a situation I was facing.”
The first finding was that people who receive emotional support feel better and have higher relationship satisfaction.
That’s principal 1: Emotional support is good. Do it.
Another finding was that wives wanted more support of all kinds than they received – both emotional and informational support. Husbands also wanted more emotional support than they received but were okay with the informational support they received.
That’s principal 2: Husbands, be more supportive overall. Wives, be more emotionally supportive.
The next finding was subtler, but quite important. Among the subset of husbands who preferred informational support, the more informational support they got the better they felt.
But among the subset of wives who do not prefer informational support, the more informational support they got the worse they felt.
That’s principal 3: Husbands, do not assume that your wife is the same as you. If you prefer informational support, don’t assume that she does too. She might have the opposite preference. The kind of information that might make you feel better might make her feel worse. Beware.
The authors conclude: “Based on these findings, couples may be well-advised to provide emotional support to one another instead of informational support.” And when it comes to informational support, couples need to know the other’s preference.
As a couples therapist, these findings make sense to me. I find this pattern again and again in my practice. Typically: the woman wants support, the man gives advice, and both feel frustrated and disconnected.
Luckily the solution is simple – and it totally agrees with the study’s conclusion. Default to emotional support. If you have no other information, give emotional support.
Beyond that, ask for what you want, and check with your partner about what they want. If you want your partner’s support about something, let them know whether you’re looking for understanding or advice. Don’t make them guess. Don’t wait to see what they do. Tell them what you want.
“Honey, I’d like to vent about something. I’m not looking for advice. Could you just hear me out and try to understand?”
“Honey, I’d like to talk to you about a problem. Could you give me some advice about what you think I could do?”
Either is fine. Whatever you want.
If your partner forgets to set things up like this, you, as the listener, can clarify.
“Would you like me to suggest solutions? Or just understand your feelings?”
Say it out loud. Make that choice explicit. It’s so much easier.